There is a saying that you don’t notice how tight your shoes are until you take them off. When I lived in Brighton and worked in a busy office, the day-to-day background hum of life was constant and never troubled me. At home, there was a train line running beyond one building at the end of our small terraced gardens, yet the trains passed unnoticed, night and day.
Moving to a peaceful valley in southern France, surrounded by vine-clad hills, there are times when it is so quiet and the air is so calm you can actually “hear the silence”. Perhaps that made certain sounds even more noticeable when they unexpectedly broke it.
I never did trace the donkey who only brayed on a Sunday afternoon. Nor the person who practiced playing his trumpet by an open upstairs window in the hot days of summer. Thankfully the trumpet player became more tuneful over time; the donkey – of course – did not! The distant baying of the hunters’ hounds echoed round the bowl of the valley too regularly for my liking. But I keep a fond memory of the dulcet tones of the mayor’s secretary, as her announcements for travelling sales vans crackled over the “’allo, ‘allo” tannoy system, with speakers in four directions.
Seagulls and songbirds
When I left those rural hills for the more touristic town of Marseillan, I was not looking for perfectly peaceful days. I had chosen a busier place to live so that I might have more social encounters, and I looked forward to joining in with the friendly neighbourhood chatter now that my French language skills had improved. We are told that the sense of smell brings the sharpest recollections; I think that sounds can be most evocative too.
Moving back to the coast, I was overjoyed to hear the cry of seagulls again. It was a sound from my seaside home in England that my heart had sorely missed. What was even better, was to find that the abundance of hedges, trees and flowering bushes at my new residence attracted a cheerful host of little songbirds to the shelter of their branches. I have long been grateful to not understand bird-talk, especially when listening to the twittering bickerings each evening at bedtime, but their voices raised in song had been a highlight of my days in the hills.
It was only when my boyfriend set up an improvised studio in his home, so that I might record the audiobook of my story, “Dream It, Do It … Why not?”, that I noticed some of the stronger background noises of Marseillan. The bells of the church clock of my old village of St Nazaire de Ladarez used to chime one minute before and one minute after each hour … just in case you failed to count them the first time. The Marseillan church bells don’t give a “double-take” every hour, but they do clamour most insistently at midday. Starting to record a chapter at 11h55 was a mistake I only made once.
There were a few other times that the sound engineer had to edit out more than a stutter or stumble. It was entirely my fault when I had to re-record an entire chapter because I had failed to turn off the electric fan heater quietly buzzing in the room beside me. But how could anyone predict the arrival time of the incredibly noisy street cleaning machine? It’s driver meticulously cleans the streets of the old town every day, but not by following any set schedule. He appears to choose a different route and different times for every day, bringing variety to routine – and who can blame him?
The Queen of Unpredictability, however, has to be the neighbourhood’s dominant dog, Bella. She is a big girl, with a big bark, and she really doesn’t like other dogs wandering onto her patch. From her first floor balcony vantage point, she spots every intruder. I cannot count the number of dogs and owners I’ve seen literally jump in shock at her first giant “Woof”. I was not so amused when her bark punctuated a particularly challenging chapter of my recording. I had just managed to successfully narrate the part about my beloved cat Fred having his “big heart” diagnosis without my voice cracking with emotion, when “Woof, woof, woof” filled my headphones.
Hey ho. “Shall I say that again, then?”
The sounds of France are sometimes surprising!
Sara Verrall is the author of Dream it, Do it… “Why not?” The true story of moving, alone, from her buzzing seaside home in Brighton to a village in a valley in the hills of rural France, where the tractors out-number the residents 2 to 1. Read our review here and find out more: dreamitdoit.fr